Project Manual: Learning Exposure

Today I took the training wheels off. It was a very sunny day in East Anglia, so I went out for a few hours with the intent on getting used to shooting with full control over the exposure. I’m trying to focus on learning one thing at a time, but I’ll have to lump in what I’ve learned about the ‘holy trinity’ as a group since they are so related. So, from how I understand it, it works something like this…

You have three settings that control the exposure: aperture size, ISO, and shutter speed. These things need to be balanced to have the correct exposure.

Aperture size is the size of the opening in the front of the lens, with the lower numbers (f1.8 on my camera) letting the most light in, and the highest numbers (f11 on my camera) the least. The trick is, this also controls your depth of field, with the lower numbers making whatever is not in focus blurry, and the higher numbers making it appear as though everything is in focus.

ISO is the camera’s ‘sensitivity to light’. I have no idea what this means in terms of physics, but basically the higher your ISO the more exposed your shot will be. The trick is, the higher your ISO, the more ‘grainy’ your picture becomes. From how I understand it, you generally want this to be as low as possible (80-200) so that you have good picture quality, but better cameras can push up to higher numbers and still look OK.

Lastly, shutter speed is how long the camera shoots the shot for (kinda?) which is measured in time (seconds, etc.). The longer you shoot for, the more exposed the shot will be. The trick is, anything over a fraction of a second and you’re going to have issues with moving objects, since they won’t sit still. You can use a long exposure to make an object get all blurry, since it’s going to move in the time that the camera takes the picture.

So, I’m still a complete n00b at this, so I try to make simple ‘rules’ to follow and pick these up wherever I can. If anyone who is more knowledgeable than me wants to correct me on where I am completely wrong, please do so.

  1. Low aperture number for macro (up close) shots. High number for landscapes. Middle number for indoor/mixed shots.
  2. Use as low an ISO as you can while still letting you balance the other two. 100 for sunny day, maybe like 400 for indoors? Not sure on this one.
  3. If you have a tripod and are shooting stills, use a long exposure so that the other two can be minimised. If not, use something small for this so that your shaky hands don’t screw everything up.

With these being said, I still have no idea how the math is supposed to work for these. I basically took a bunch of shots while eye-balling these settings in complete manual mode, and a bunch with auto-HDR on (a setting I still have to learn about, I just put it on auto because it seemed to help the outdoors shots).

Everything worked fairly well when I was indoors. I used auto focus, set the ISO to 400, the aperture size to f/1.8, and then tweaked my exposure time until it looked alright.

I was overall very happy with how these turned out. I’m probably a bit blind, but I think these match reality fairly closely in terms of colour and brightness. These gave me the courage to go shoot outside when it was bright out. This was a lot of fun, but I found that in very sunny shots where there were shadows, the shadows were black as the face of Satan and the sky looked like the skin of a metrosexual vampire.

The other thing I learned was that, on a bright day, using just the camera’s screen to judge exposure is fucking difficult. I could barely see, as my eyes adjusted to the light, and so I made everything just a bit too dark most of the time.

Still, I took loads of shots. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and I think when I shot in the shade I was able to get the exposure closer to decent. Most of these I didn’t expect to be any good, but they ended up being my favourites.

DSC00334DSC00397DSC00362DSC00393

I think the main reason for the rest of the pictures being pretty terrible is because I was eye-balling with the camera’s screen. In the future, I think I’ll shoot on sunny days in a mode with some automated exposure — probably Aperture Priority mode — since I can’t seem to consistently get the exposure right when my eyes are adjusted to the brightness. The other thing I have considered is shooting in RAW and manually tweaking the curves in Photoshop, but that’s kind of pointless right now since I am trying to learn how to use the camera.

Please feel free to comment and give me tips on how to improve my shots. Keep in mind, these are shot on a compact RX-100 so lenses aren’t in the cards.

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